Everest: Fighting on the mountain

The big news in the world of adventure this past week has been a fight between two well known alpinists and the Nepalese Sherpas preparing a safe route up the Lhotse Face on the mountain. My initial reaction when I saw the war headlines, was that all I read only came from the perspective of the Western alpinists. The first one to voice the other side was Alan Arnette, old enough compared to many of the other voices as regards to this unfortunate incident, to have a perspective. He loves the mountain, have been there umpteenth times and has a lot of respect for local culture and people. I have followed this incident quite carefully and I see that quite a few who only support the view of Moro, Steck and Griffith are young with an overwhelming Western perspective. They´re athletes more than explorers, which I regard Alan as. Yes, for me that is quite a difference. An explorer takes in local culture, an athlete not as much. He or she are primerely there for their own sake. Having said all that, I don´t know any of the athletes involved and none of the Sherpas and violence is never a good soultion. But, I can understand everybody´s reaction. It is one side Latin temper, Moro, and on the other side, the temper of a people who have been under immense pressure from the volatile political situation in the country. That can make anyone snap. I asked Alan if I could reprint his first story, to which he agreed. But I want to add, since this story he has written more, please see www.alanarnette.com and also visit Explorersweb for more perspective. And don´t forget to the read the comments! Alan has written several interesting articles for me on the subject of Mount Everest, see here!

Fighting on Everest

By

Alan Arnette

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I am not a psychiatrist but do know that large goals seem to brings out the best, and the worst in people. Everest is one of the champions in this area.

For many years now, Everest has attracted detractors. They find every reason to criticize Everest climbers as unprofessional, amateurs, ill-prepared, etc. They go on to decry the environmental impact, the impact on the local people; anything to support their point.

Some professional climbers join in the chorus making fun of the average Everest climber doing what they like to call the “tourist route”, and they often say worse. Their insensitivity when climbers die is sometimes crass, in poor taste and judgmental.

Even Reinhold Messner could not contain his criticism of non-professional climbers recently when he said “up to 90 per cent of those passing through Everest base camp could be using chemical assistance to climb the world’s highest peak”

Now we have a report of professional climbers fighting with Sherpas while the “amateurs” watched in disbelief.

A History of Conflict

This is not the first time people have lost their temper, or common sense, on Everest.

Outside Magazine published a long article on this back in 2001 where they accused Henry Todd of attacking a reporter from the Discovery Channel. Todd was banned from Everest for a time somewhat based on that incident.

In 2008, a climber took it upon himself to support Tibet with a highly offensive banner directed towards the Chinese. He posted the banner on his tent at Camp 2. He was escorted off the mountain by the Nepalese army as they were “guarding” Everest that year so the Chinese could take the Olympic torch to the summit without incident.

Last year, it was reported that The Tibetan rope fixers on the North side caught and bound a Chinese climber who was there without a permit in order to remove him from the mountain.

I have witnessed professional guides screaming at climbers to “get off my rope”.

The Sherpa community also exhibits tempers. I have been yelled at descending the Lhotse Face for going too slow or using the wrong rope. They take the rope fixing responsibility extremely seriously and have asked Westerns not to participate many times. It is rare and apparently annoying to have Westerners tailing them to claim “first summit”.

Many Sherpas feel Everest, Chomolungma, belongs to the Sherpas and it is their mountain and as such Westerners are guests. It is common for Sherpas to say they should own all the records. So when they feel like a Westerner is not showing respect to them or the mountain, it can be a trigger point.

I wrote an article for Rock and Ice magazine called Everest Deserves Respect so it pains me to report what happened last Friday. It is appearing like there is a lot of blame to be passed around.

Fighting on the Lhotse Face

There were hints of something serious last Friday when progress on fixing the line to Camp 3 came to an abrupt halt. Blog posts became quiet and some hints were made about a conflict.

On Sunday, professional climber Simone Moro posted a report on Montagna.tv of a fight that occurred last Friday. Moro, Ueli Steck and photographer Jon Griffith from EpicTV, were attempting a new route on the Southwest Face with Mora and Steck not using supplemental oxygen. They were not using Sherpas either. Moro and Steck are sponsored by The North Face and Mountain Hardwear respectively.

Moro has become something of a celebrity on Everest by flying a helicopter for Fishtail air frequently from the lower villages to Base Camp and occasionally into the Western Cwm to pick up sick, injured or even dead climbers. He has summited Everest four times.

In his report, Moro alleges that he, Steck and Griffith were simply climbing towards Camp 3 and passed the Sherpa team who were fixing rope on the Lhotse Face. Moro goes on to say an altercation took place which involved “touching”. They reacted and a fight ensued. Back at Camp 2, Moro states 100 Sherpas surrounded them, threw rocks and punches and threatened to kill them and their lives were saved only by an intervention of Western guides.

This is the link to the report and EpicTV’s translation. It serves as the primary basis for the media reports we are seeing.  The Himalayan Times gave this account of the incident:

The two sides have their own versions of the incident. The injured tourists said they got attacked for no apparent reason, whereas the workers claimed that they retaliated after Italian citizen Moro threatened them identifying himself as an international tourist guide. Moro and Griffith have sustained minor injuries, while Steck has received a deep cut on his face. Preparations are on to airlift Steck to Kathmandu from Lukla. The other two were taken to the base camp for treatment last evening.

Reaction

For what it is worth, few of the guides or climbers who are posting regularly have much to say about this publicly. Most are making oblique references to “a few unforeseen delays”. Kind of a ‘what happens on Everest, stays on Everest’ approach. But with Moro publishing his report, the story is out.

Adrian Ballinger, Alpenglow, did make a post on his blog:

To me, the bottom line is that multiple mistakes were made by both sides. On Everest, the professional climbers (even when attempting new routes) also benefit from fixed ropes, trails broken, and rescue caches placed, primarily by the Sherpa. The professional climbers involved could have and should have chosen somewhere else to acclimatize on this day, instead of solo climbing above the rope fixing team. Everyone knew about the rope fixing effort, and other teams that would have liked to be climbing where the incident occurred respected the rope fixing effort and stayed off the Lhotse Face. Even if no rock or ice actually was knocked off by the professional climbers, and even if no rope-fixing sherpa was injured, there was still a perception of disrespect for the effort. As part of past rope-fixing efforts on Everest, I can attest to the importance of not having other climbers pushing the team from below, or putting the team at risk from above.

With that said, the response from some (not all) of the Sherpa was inexplicable and inexcusable. Regardless of the disagreement, or the inappropriate language used by the western climbers, the threats and attempts at violence by the Sherpa involved were wrong. I was given numerous possible explanations for the severity of their anger, but none of them justify attempting bodily harm. This behavior would be wrong anywhere. Above 6000 meters on a mountain, where we all need to depend on each other to try to minimize accidents, injuries, and death, this behavior does nothing but undermine the bonds between teams and climbers that we depend on. It is my understanding that a small number of sherpa led and incensed the rest of the “mob” that formed. It is my opinion that these sherpa should be removed from the mountain for this season, and potentially prosecuted. The same goes for the westerners, if eyewitness reports stand true, that responded with violence. Their behavior stands in sharp contrast to the numerous westerners and sherpa that did not resort to violence and attempted to diffuse the situation, even at risk to themselves.

I think most expeditions see it as an embarrassment and want it to go away. I believe it will pass but be used by Everest critics as yet another reason Everest is a bad thing. And the press will sell a lot of advertising based on the headline.

Putting Together What Happened

I have received some insight into what happened directly from people who were there. One point is that, publicly, we only have Moro’s version of the story. It is doubtful given the Sherpa culture, that we will have the same level of detail for the Sherpas involved so for now the Moro version will control the media.

This is what I think happened based on my investigating and first hand reports. I could be way off so this is just an opinion.

Moro, Steck and Griffith were climbing to spend an acclimatization night at Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face. At the same time, the Sherpa team was trying to set the lines to the same Camp to be used by a large number of commercial climbers located at Camp 2.

There is an unwritten rule that all climbers stay off the Face while the Sherpas are fixing rope. In fact, a team of Russians began following them, were asked to stop by a Western Guide and complied with the request, turning back to wait until the work was finished.

The Sherpas had been working hard to find a safe route up the Lhotse Face. They had been stalled the previous day after finding a large crevasse near the normal location of Camp 3 thus needing to return the next day and find a new safe route.

In 2012, several Sherpa were injured by falling rock due to low snow levels that year prevented lose rock from being attached to the Face. In 2013, early conditions were similar so they had initially taken a longer, more difficult route to avoid the hazard but then ran into more difficulties. Now they were taking the normal direct route up the center of the Lhotse Face.

Moro and crew were anxious to reach their camp and started climbing a bit away from the Sherpas working on the Face. They must have had little patience for the slow moving Sherpas who had to go slow since they were carrying line, anchors and setting protection every few hundred feet, a slow and tedious process by design.

The Sherpas seeing the three climbers, asked them not climb above them due to potential rock fall. They also asked them not to touch the ropes, a common request given they need to be manipulated during the fixing. Everyone agreed but the three continued climbing higher and became parallel with the Sherpas but still trying to be very careful along the way.

Once they reached their high point and location of a tent previously established by Denis Urubko, they traversed across the Face just above the Sherpas. A piece of ice was dislodged, falling down the face and hit one the Sherpas who works for a large commercial guiding company. He was slightly injured.

This continued movement and falling ice enraged the lead Sherpa who reacted emotionally. He decided to take action.

The lead Sherpa fixing the ropes, approached them and apparently he and Steck touched, most likely by accident. However, there was one report of a Sherpa being “grabbed” by his jacket. The situation became even more heated and the Sherpa team descended to Camp 2 leaving Moro and team alone on the Face.

Moro and Steck took some of the fixed rope and continued climbing higher and finished fixing the line to Camp 3. Perhaps this was an effort to appease the Sherpas. However, it probably inflamed the situation as now they were doing the Sherpa’s work.

Moro and team returned to Camp 2 where words were exchanged, tempers flared, threats were made. Other Sherpas joined in, most likely standing around to see what all the yelling was about. Western climbers and guides also came out of their tents.

One Western Guide was reported to have swatted a rock out of the hands of one of the Sherpa. This was the final straw for the Sherpas.

With the huge crowd gathered at 21,500 feet, tempers flared, a few rocks were thrown and there was a push or two. Some of the more senior Sherpa and Western Guides interceded to calm things down.

Moro and crew returned to Base Camp as did the Sherpas crew but by different routes avoiding each other.

The rope fixers took Sunday off intending to resume work on the Lhotse Face Monday.

As for how Ueli got his “deep cuts”on his face, that I have no idea and will not speculate but hope he is safe.

Epilogue

A large meeting was held today, Monday at Base Camp. A very senior Sherpa speaking for all the Sherpa formally apologized to all the Westerners. All the expedition Sidars (leaders of the Sherpas for each expedition) pledged that something like this will never happen again.

Moro and Steck also stood up and apologized to the rope fixers. It is reported now that they announced their expedition and attempt for a new route was over. Ueli said he is leaving Everest and returning home while Moro is staying to continue flying helicopters for Fishtail Air. Moro’s Facebook page says they are evaluating the situation.

Everyone at Base Camp expressed a desire to put this behind them and get back to climbing.

It is reported the Nepal police and Ministry of Tourism officials are investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, teams continue climbing and are positioned at Camp 2 ready to go to C3 when the lines are ready.

UPDATEPlanetmountain.com has posted an interview with Moro where he continues to say he has no idea why the Sherpas were upset. He also states the expedition is over with Steck and Griffith leaving and Moro staying to fly helicopters. But there are also other reports saying they will stay so time will tell.

Climb On!
Alan
Memories are Everything

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Alan Arnette is a mountaineer, speaker and Alzheimer’s Advocate. He took early retirement from executive level positions with HP after a 30 year career to oversee the care of his mother, Ida, who passed away from Alzheimer’s. In 2011, on behalf of Alzheimer’s causes Alan, at age 54, did something few people have even attempted; he climbed the highest mountain on each continent, including Mt. Everest, in under one year. He shares his experiences through www.alanarnette.com and Outside Magazine with an active following of over 1 million people.

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